When I was a little girl, our phone rang a lot but not all calls were for us.
Children didn’t use telephones. On a line with six or eight customers, every
phone rang and the line was busy when anyone was talking. Everyone knew who
was being called by the ring signals; ours was one long and two shorts. They
knew when the line was cleared because people “rang off” with a short
Mom would grind a little handle on the side of the tall oak phone box. A
friendly woman called “Central” would ask, “Number, please?” Mom would
push a black button as she talked. and before giving the number she might say,
“We missed you at church Sunday.” They’d chat as Central selected Mom’s
“plug in” to connect her to the other phone. This was a mutual phone system.
The phone usually jingled but it roared furiously when someone was reporting a
serious injury or fire.
Eavesdropping might have seemed nosy or malicious but it was most often done
to be helpful. Mom might interrupt a call to say, “You can ride in with me
right after lunch.” Mrs. Crouch might ask a farmer hauling grain to market if
Dessie could go with him to get groceries. Central listened, too, and was glad
to relay news and weather before pulling the plug to end a conversation .
In 1~922 when our house was engulfed in flames, Central rang frantically and
screamed, “O.D.’s house is on fire,” over and over as receivers came off the
hooks. The home burned to the ground but two men got there in time to carry
the cured hams and bacon slabs out of the burning smoke house which was near
the back porch. The building collapsed before they could get to Mom’s canned
Some people lived far away from the phone lines. Bess and John Estes, for
example, had no car or telephone. Bess drove a horse and buggy to Olivet
Church every Sunday regardless of the weather. There was no phone at the
church but William McHarg unlocked his store after the services and people
like Bess could buy groceries, clothing and farm supplies -- and use the store
My husband’s family lived in Illinois and his father needed phone service on
the Pittsfield line, the Baylis line and the Farmers’ line because he bought
and sold cattle. Three telephones! Users were owners of the Farmers’ line.
They cut and set their own poles, bought wire and strung it and bought their
own phone boxes. There was no Central. Each family chose a signal and turned
the ringer crank to call others.
They ground out a short and one long for this one, two long~ and ~a short for
~that one -- and so on. Consequently, ~they paid no phone bills. The
~Ger~ards’ neighbors would ring Chub’s mother ~and say, ~“Please call my
sister and tell her...” Or she would take a message in reverse and relay i~t
~to a person on either of the other two lines.
When I was about 10 years old, I liked going with Mom when she visited ~her
friend in Hinton. The friend was Central in the mutual phone system there, and
the switchboard was in one corner of her bedroom. She sa~t where she could see
it from her living room. When lights went on ~she’d go “plu~g in” so people
could talk to each other. I decided that would be a great occupa~tion for me
when I grew up.